Within the last ten days, two former colleagues and another ex-journalist died. Coming so close together, their deaths force me to ask: when is my turn?
Chandra Segar Pillay, the former executive editor production at the New Straits Times (NST), died on Oct 4 aged 65, K Parameswaran, the former executive editor news at the NST, died on Oct 14 aged 60, and A R Amiruddin, a former reporter with The Star, also died on Sunday, Oct 14 aged 78.
Cancer took their lives.
Both Chandra and K P Waran were good journalists but almost totally opposite in character. You could say they were a study in contrasts. While Chandra was quiet and taciturn, Waran was loud and voluble, even loquacious. Chandra kept to himself most of the time; Waran was almost always surrounded by people; Chandra was a teetotaler, Waran enjoyed his liquor; Chandra was wedded to his work, Waran was a fun lover, and not averse to playing truant for a game of golf.
Chandra didn’t have too many friends, and he kept the fact that he was suffering from cancer even from them. The bachelor, who had apparently informed his sisters not to tell anyone of the disease, was an extremely secretive man, and in the end, he even managed to keep his death a secret from his closest friends and ex-colleagues. As far as I know, none of Chandra’s friends knew he had died until a day or two after the funeral.
I came to know him only when he was executive editor production and I chief news editor as we had to discuss the daily front page stories and lead stories, but former NST sports editor Lazarus Rokk knew him well.
Rokk said Chandra, who started as a sports reporter in The Star, was not an enthusiastic beat reporter but was an excellent behind-the-scenes man. “He had a good command of English and was a good copy sub-editor. He was good at headings and loved it if you came with a good story, as he could then do a layout and give headings that would make the page come alive. He was creative, an ideas man, and knew how to package stories.”
I never read any of Chandra’s writings as at the time I knew him, he did not write any, but I understand from those who knew him in the earlier years that he wrote well. For a while he wrote a sports column under the pseudonym “Dr Guillotine”, and as the name suggests, he enjoyed guillotining sports officials and sportsmen.
At least two journalists had warned me, in earlier years, that Chandra loved to gossip about other staff with a couple of close colleagues, and that he was an expert at office politics.
I must say that for an accountant by training, he came out with some captivating front page designs. Watching him work helped me later, when as New Sunday Times associate editor, I worked on the front page designs with the graphic artists. Chandra didn’t work on Saturdays, so the front page design was largely left to me and New Sunday Times editor Joseph Sossai.
After retiring from NST he left to join The Edge, but he would still drop by at the restaurant at Mutiara Complex next to NST for breakfast or a drink and occasionally I would join him. It was at one of these chats that he asked me to join him at The Edge which had started an online magazine called The Edge Review covering news in Southeast Asia. I, too, had retired from NST but continued to work on contract. As some developments at NST then did not make me feel comfortable, I agreed.
It was at The Edge Review that I came to know him even better as it was a small core team of initially four people, later expanding to six – excluding the correspondents in several countries – and often I sent him home in my car as he neither drove nor had a car. But even then he kept his distance, remaining somewhat of a stranger.
I first met Waran when I was assigned to cover an Asean Summit in Jakarta, with him as team leader. I was then staff correspondent at the Penang bureau while he worked at the headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
He introduced me to Hard Rock Café in Jakarta. That’s where he learned that I don’t drink alcohol but that didn’t stop him from taking me there again the following day. In fact, years later in Kuala Lumpur, he took me to Ronnie Q’s in Bangsar a few times, where, while he had his beer, I had lemon.
Our upward movement at the NST was linked: When Waran was moved to the Newsdesk as news editor, I took over from him as foreign editor. When he became deputy chief news editor, I became news editor; when he became chief news editor, I moved to occupy his former post; and when he was appointed executive editor news, I became chief news editor.
Even though we were never really close, we were on good terms, despite the fact that sometimes we argued over the way a particular news item should be approached or played up. He had his favourites, who simply loved him; but there were also reporters who didn’t like him, and who would complain to me about him.
His booming voice could be heard across the editorial floor, especially when he shouted at a reporter. And whenever I told him it would be better to call the reporter over and talk to him or her, he’d laugh it off, saying: “You don’t know these monkeys”.
But there was no malice in him, and he was always helpful.
The last time I met Chandra was on May 9, polling day for the 14th general election, where he exchanged a few pleasantries with me at Brickfields before shuffling off. The last time I saw Waran was at a wedding more than two years ago where he was still full of life.
Just as I finished writing this column, I learned that A R Amiruddin, formerly of The Star, died on Sunday and I am including him here because I knew him during my Penang years. He was an unassuming, quiet reporter who had a good network of contacts. He excelled at writing people-centric stories.
We used to meet at assignments and at functions and I always found him to be humble and friendly. He loved adventure and would frequently go hiking and fishing. In a way, he was, midway between Chandra and Waran in character: quiet, yet friendly and active.
The fact that he is on record as the oldest person to celebrate their birthday atop Mt Kinabalu, should tell us something about his tenacity and his love of adventure. He celebrated his 60th birthday there.
And now he is gone. So too Chandra. So too Waran.
Wherever they are, I hope they are at peace. What else can I say or think? Who knows where they are now? Those who believe in heaven and hell, can pray that they are in heaven. But who has seen heaven? Or hell? Those who believe in another birth can pray that they take a good birth next.
Sometimes I wonder if such beliefs are so commonly held because they serve to soothe our fear of death. I ask myself: Are we thus deluding ourselves?
And what can you say to the family of someone who has died? I always struggle with this, and am lost for words at funerals and wakes, which is one reason I sometimes avoid them.
I am reminded again that nothing is permanent; if anything is permanent, surely it can only be death.
As I write this, I wonder if Death will come for me next.
Every time somebody I know dies, I recall several lines from the poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by John Donne, one of the first poets I loved reading:
“Any man’s death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind,
And therefore send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.
The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.